May 2, 2008, 12:00 AM

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Today, shoppers may use more than 450 combinations of browsers and operating systems to view an e-commerce site, says Gomez Inc., a web performance measurement and management company. Yet most retailers still only test basic combinations of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari. Screen resolutions also vary widely. The most common screen resolution is 1024×768 pixels, but that can vary from 800×600 to 1280×1024 pixels.

“Many retailers probably do some basic internal testing of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, but that is not a wide enough lens for them to really see how their customers are viewing the site,” says Gomez vice president of performance strategies Matthew Poepsel. “Testing a broader universe of browsers and operating systems provides a better benchmark and troubleshoots problems. A product page that looks fine on one desktop may appear full of bad breaks and color bleeds on another.”

To expedite more sophisticated performance testing, retailers should also be testing how their web site performs across different networks at varying times and from different geographic locations. The survey, which includes responses from 69 web-only retailers, 26 chain retailers, 18 catalog companies and 10 consumer brand manufacturers, finds that 48.9% test new pages, features and functions in a pre-production environment, and 40.4% also test site performance from both inside and outside of the firewall.

These testing procedures help a retailer monitor basic performance, but not troubleshoot and eliminate more complicated problems such as animated files that take up too much bandwidth and increase load time. Only 16% of companies participating in the Internet Retailer survey test the performance of their web store from different geographic locations or at different times of day and just 16% record and replay specific user transactions.

Even though more retailers are launching programs that give their customers options to shop online using their web-enabled cell phone or handheld device, only 13% of retailers test the performance of their mobile commerce applications. “For many retailers there is still too much guesswork surrounding performance testing,” Poepsel says. “Retailers are reporting much better uptime and site availability, but even one hour of downtime is still going to cost lost sales and angry customers they might not get back.”

The most frequent performance-related problems retailers must troubleshoot or fix are straightforward. The survey finds that broken shopping carts or faulty account log-ins are the most frequent customer complaints, cited by 44.4% of the companies, followed by other problems at 27.9% and slow loading home or product pages at 23.3%. Broken links-a major performance headache for retailers in the past-are less of problem with just 4.4% of merchants reporting broken links as a major cause of customer complaints.

Broader approach

Just over half of participants in the survey-52.2%-use a third-party web site performance monitoring provider or application. But whether they conduct performance testing in-house or outsource the job, merchants will still need to implement broader monitoring measures to keep pace with new web and e-commerce applications that involve more social networking, interactive tools, rich media and mash-ups, really simple syndication and open application programming interfaces, or APIs. Mash-ups combine data from multiple sources into a single integrated tool and enable web retailers to compare product prices using various search methods, which, in turn, are compiled or “mashed up” for shoppers to read on a product page.

“Managing web site and Web 2.0 application performance requires a more comprehensive approach than has been used traditionally,” says Steve Harriman, senior vice president of marketing at NetQoS Inc., a network performance management company. “Merchants need adaptive performance baselines that reflect business cycles and enable them to be much more proactive in managing and optimizing service delivery.”

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